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Finding a Fit: Campus Culture and the MBA Learning Environment

Business school culture and finding a fit

As you may have noticed, business schools use the word ‘fit’ a lot. Admissions committees look for fit amid the mountain of applications they receive each year, while school faculty and leaders also go to great lengths to show prospective MBA students that their institution can provide a fit for the professional and personal development ambitions of talented individuals. But what are we really talking about by using the word ‘fit’ in this context?


The significance of business school culture

Find a campus culture you can thrive inIn its business education usage, fit will naturally encompass essential program elements, such as typical career paths taken by graduates or areas of faculty expertise and course availability. But, much of fit is a question of environmental culture. When assessing your candidacy, either on paper or in person at an interview, schools want to know if you will fit into their community, embrace the campus culture and uphold the values they hold dear. Just as important, however, is that the school can prove these same points to be true from your perspective.

In a recent blog post on TopMBA.com, Pathik Bhatt underlines the need to look at more than just professional goals to determine which school can best suit your personality and outlook:

“Think about it: your business school culture is going to be part of you forever. Your business school peers will likely make up a larger part of your network than most other groups,” the online MBA student at the Kelley School of Business writes.

MBA students - seek an environment in which you are likely to thrive

In this light, it seems prudent for prospective MBA students to ask themselves whether a particular school provides a learning environment, as well as a community in which they are likely to thrive. To answer this question, it helps to have a good handle on the kind of campus culture that is most likely to appeal to you (not as easy as it sounds), before researching - and ideally, visiting - schools to see how greatly these factors might vary between schools, even among the world’s very best. Indeed, some characteristics - should they be accentuated or toned down at a particular establishment - might have the power to sway you completely in your choice of school.

As part of GMAC’s annual report into the preferences of prospective MBA students around the world, there is a segment devoted to the question of business school culture. Respondents are asked to opt between two opposing characteristics, with results then divided along generational lines (Baby Boomers vs. Gen X vs. Millennials).

A total of 14 different areas were surveyed and - between the two options given in each area - the preferences of prospective MBA students varied quite considerably, particularly across GMAC’s age groupings.

Some of the most popular choices, by age grouping, are shown in the table below:

Generational differences in business school cultural preferences

Source: GMAC (2015) mba.com Prospective Students Survey

Two of the most common preferences, among all ages, were an active learning approach and small individual class sizes (not to be confused with cohort size). Both these characteristics were chosen by over 80% of prospective MBA students, no matter their age group, and should really be provided by most reputable schools. The hands on approach, for example, is a well-established emphasis among the curricula of top business schools, most notably seen in their provision of experiential learning projects.

Close-knit communities and other campus culture elements to watch for

Elsewhere, things seem a little less decisive. For instance, would you prefer a campus culture that is close-knit or more loosely connected?

In answering this question, the youngest generation - the Millennials - skewed strongly towards a close-knit business school culture, with roughly four in every five prospective MBA students choosing this option in GMAC’s analysis. But, a quarter of those in Gen X wanted something more loosely connected and so did 40% of Baby Boomers.

A similar pattern was also in evidence when it came to the choice between a collaborative or competitive learning environment. In any age grouping, the majority favored collaboration, but whereas only 25% of Baby Boomers preferred a more competitive environment; the proportion rose to over a third (36%) among Millennials, suggesting that the emerging generation is increasingly keen on a competitive atmosphere, a finding that schools should be alive to.

It is, after all, Millennials who make up the vast majority of prospective MBA students. The mean age of respondents to the QS Applicant Survey 2014 only varies between a low of 26.4 (in Asia-Pacific) to a high of 29.8 (across Western Europe) so, by GMAC’s definition of generational age ranges, the average applicant is a Millennial (applicable to anyone born no earlier than 1981), regardless of where they are in the world. Indeed, in the GMAC survey, 88% of respondents worldwide are defined as Millennials.

At this point, it’s worth reiterating that both a close-knit campus culture and a collaborative learning environment are the most popular choices in their respective areas. What this data tells us, however, is that prospective MBA students won’t always want the same things – you might well consider the sense of independence a loosely connected campus might allow or the idea of rising to a more competitive atmosphere to be more important in your own assessment of business school culture fit.

If you find yourself among either of these groups, how might this then affect your choice of business school? Well, in appealing to prospective student bodies that have differing priorities and outlooks, schools won’t always provide the same things either – by nature and by design.

As a report in Poets & Quants points out, institutions based in large, sprawling cities will tend to be better able to provide a more loosely connected ambience on campus purely by dint of their surroundings, densely populated areas which, incidentally, also tend to breed competitive spirit – although the report freely admits that this is quite a sweeping generalization.

Even so, if you’re looking to study in a truly urban locale, the city-based campuses of NYU Stern, Chicago Booth, INSEAD Singapore or London Business School would all offer strong options. Meanwhile, if you’re after more of a ‘college-town’ experience, then your research might extend to any of Michigan Ross, Dartmouth Tuck, INSEAD France, Cambridge Judge or Oxford Saïd.

Further cultural pointers from GMAC’s analysis

Choose a learning environment you can be comfortable withElsewhere in GMAC’s analysis of preferences, there was a big swing of 15% between a research and teaching-led approach as applicants grew older. Whereas just 30% of Baby Boomers (defined as being born between 1948 and 1964) favored a research-led approach over one centered on teaching, this proportion was almost half among Millennials (45%).  

Another interesting difference could be seen in the divide between those seeking a more ‘authoritarian’ business school culture over one than it is described as ‘egalitarian’. Yes, the spirit of equality was more sought-after in every age category, but many more of the younger crowd (33% of Millennials versus just 17% of Boomers) seemed to think that a firm hand might ultimately be more beneficial.

Lastly, preferences to put the individual ahead of the team in a school’s learning environment grew along with the age of GMAC’s respondents, as it also did among the prospective MBA students who, when faced with a choice between an informal or formal business school culture, opted to dispense with the formalities. Both of these variances may well speak to the level of experience among older candidates – who perhaps feel less of a need to adhere to a formal atmosphere than their younger peers or who, conversely, are keen to ensure that any age-related stereotyping cannot be applied to them. 


Surveying the differences in cultural preferences found by GMAC should, by now, have got you thinking about what it is that might be the most important factors to you in joining, and committing to, a business school community. For all the interesting age-related trends one can find in data such as this, ultimately, finding the right campus culture and learning environment is always going to be a very individual process and one that only serves to reinforce the importance of carrying out thorough business school research before you apply.

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Written by Tim Dhoul

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).

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